A year to remember
Blog by Andrei Iancu, Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the USPTO
“Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering ‘it will be happier’.”
― Alfred Lord Tennyson
The end of a year is always a time for reflection on what we’ve accomplished and where we want to go. In 2020, the world faced a pandemic unlike anything we have seen in a century. Yet, as they always do during difficult times, inventors and entrepreneurs rose to the challenge.
Consider, for example, the multiple COVID-19 vaccines that were developed in less than a year, but are based on decades of research and countless inventions in dozens of scientific and technology disciplines. The importance of our nation’s consistent support of such creativity over time is more evident now than ever. As one COVID-19 vaccine manufacturer noted in its press release: “Intellectual property rights play an important role in encouraging investment in research.”
There are many other innovations that helped confront the global health crisis. Some companies built ventilators, masks, testing equipment, and other life-saving necessities at a previously unimaginable scale. Many others facilitated a quick and massive shift to telework. The advanced networks making this possible are keeping large segments of the U.S. economy operational. They have reduced exposure to the virus and will permanently change how we work, shop, and live.
The USPTO has been instrumental in spurring these innovations. When we do our job right, individuals and companies are motivated to keep inventing, secure in the knowledge that our great nation will protect their IP. And when it mattered most over this tumultuous year, we certainly did our job right.
Most importantly, we remained open for business and we worked harder than ever before. Because we have been a national leader in telework, we were well positioned to transition the USPTO’s 13,000-plus employees to full-time telework. Still, this required herculean efforts on the part of everyone, but especially our IT professionals who continue to make it possible. As a result of their amazing efforts, our employees’ productivity did not suffer. In fact, we are examining patent applications faster than last year.
We also implemented a number of programs to directly assist our stakeholders. We recognized that small companies and individual inventors play a critical role inventing treatments and cures for COVID-19, and we were vigilant in ensuring that they received the support they needed. To that end, we instituted the COVID-19 Fast Track Program, which enabled small- and micro-entities to accelerate prosecution of COVID-19-related patent applications, at no charge. We also launched Patents 4 Partnerships, which provided a repository of COVID-19-related patents and patent applications, and created a voluntary platform for connecting patentees and potential licensees.
More generally, we instituted a number of temporary changes providing the greater innovation community with more flexibility in meeting filing deadlines and making fee payments. Within days of Congress passing the CARES Act, we waived many patent and trademark-related deadlines for situations where an applicant could not meet a deadline or make a payment because of the pandemic. We lifted all original signature requirements; and we moved to an entirely electronic filing system, including even for plant patents.
And, notwithstanding the difficulties caused by COVID-19, we continued to implement broader improvements to the American innovation ecosystem. For example, we improved our Section 101 analysis, increasing the certainty of examination by a remarkable 44%. And we restored balance to post-grant proceedings at the PTAB through a series of carefully-crafted reforms. We initiated a major national effort to broaden participation in the IP community by launching an Expanding Innovation hub, and starting the National Council for Expanding American Innovation. And we launched the Legal Experience and Advancement Program (LEAP) to help develop the next generation of attorneys. We saw the new – and very significant – Trademark Modernization Act signed into law. And we helped more trademark applicants than ever before, with the Trademark Assistance Center answering 128,370 calls, a 10% increase over the prior year.
This year, during the pandemic, we also greatly increased our collaboration with other countries to the benefit of our stakeholders. We entered new bilateral agreements, such as a parallel patent grant agreement with Mexico; a patent validation agreement with Cambodia; and a new memorandum of understanding with India. And on the multilateral stage, we worked closely with many other nations to create a broad coalition of countries to elect new leaders at WIPO who champion the importance of, and respect for, intellectual property. We also elevated the rank of our IP attachés at several major embassies, in a clear signal that the United States takes very seriously the protection and enforcement of IP rights around the world.
These are just some of the highlights. You can find others on our website and news releases. I am so very proud to have led the dedicated employees of the USPTO who stepped up to the challenges of a most remarkable year to help keep America moving forward with critical innovations that are now saving lives across the globe.
And the best is yet to come. Our intellectual property system — born from our Constitution and steeped in our history — is strong and it supports our nation’s innovators who are more creative and more capable than they have ever been. “Hope smiles” on this great country, and I am convinced that its future is bright indeed.
On behalf of our entire nationwide USPTO workforce, I wish for you a safe, healthy, and prosperous 2021. For, as Alfred Lord Tennyson ventured, “It will be happier.”